Friday, June 18, 2010

Roman Festivals

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent”
-  Victor Hugo 

In 1928 near the end of his career as a composer of works, mainly tone poems, for symphony orchestra Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) composed Roman Festivals (Feste Romane).  He had become well known for his transcriptions of music of the distant past such as Ancient Airs and Dances, and his earlier tone poems based on Roman themes, including The Fountains of Rome (1917) and Pines of Rome (1924).  Last Wednesday evening the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra inaugurated the current season of summer concerts with a night of Roman-themed music that concluded with Respighi's Roman Festivals.  This work is in four parts which Respighi labeled: I. The Circus Maximus, II. The Jubilee, III. The October Excursions, and IV. The Eve of the Epiphany in Piazza Navona.  The concluding section is the best known movement (in my memory) and has the distinctive rhythms of the Saltarello and the stornello gradually growing to a somewhat bombastic but joyful conclusion.  The earlier sections each demonstrated familiar Respighi-like harmonies that one of my friends with whom I attended the concert recognized immediately.  The piece was appropriate for the climax of an evening of music feting Rome.

The concert had started with Berlioz's famous Roman Carnival Overture (Le Carnaval Romain), Op. 9.  Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) composed the overture in 1844 and it was an immediate hit with Parisian audiences, as it has been to this day.  When I was in our high school concert band we played a transcription of it and I, fortunately, was the English Horn soloist although I still remember my nervousness in being asked to play such a prominent solo (this occurs in the introductory section of the overture).  The gestation of this overture began with Berlioz's opera "Benvenuto Cellini" which met with an unfortunate reception when first performed in Paris in 1838. For the London production, he wrote a second overture,"The Roman Carnival," to be played before the second act. The principal theme is taken from the Saltarello, in the closing scene of the first act of the opera. The overture begins with this theme, given by the violins with response at first in the flute, oboe and, clarinet, and then in the horns, basoon, trumpet, and cornet. After a sudden pause and some light passage work in the strings, woodwinds, and horns, the movement changes to the theme taken from an aria of Benvenuto's in the first act, given out by the English horn. The subdued melody is next taken by the violas, passing to the horns and violas. The interwoven with this romantic melody is heard a dance passage in the woodwinds and brasses, also in the percussion instruments. Gradually the dance passage dies away, giving place to the Andante theme, but anon the time changes, and the strings begin the Saltarello, completing the main section of the overture. The entire development now runs on this movement with the Andante heard at intervals in contrast, and worked up in close harmony. The Saltarello dominates the Finale at a rushing pace. The overture is brilliant throughout and full of the gay, bustling scenes of the carnival.

The main piece on the evening concert was Vivaldi's famous and popular The Four seasons (Le Quattro Stagioni).  Antonio Vivaldi (1669-1741) composed these pieces as four concerti grossi for violin and string orchestra with their related theme of the four seasons.  While not designed as such, the Vivaldi concerto grossi appear to resemble the tone poem style of composition that would not come into vogue until the following century.  This collection of pieces has become an audience favorite and, although the softer parts were difficult to hear from our lawn seats, we enjoyed the ambience created by this music that is at once both highly imaginative yet truly realistic.  The evening of Roman Festivals was a great way to begin the summer season in Millenium Park.

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